Earlier this month, New York lost one of its most unique cultural figures: Bill Menking, who died of cancer at age 72. Best known as the co-founder of The Architect’s Newspaper in 2003, Bill was a unifying force in a city that was often dazed and confused about its role in the world of design, urbanism, and art. He maintained a wide network of friends and powerful, sometimes antagonistic, leaders in diverse design fields, from downtown art mavens to the most esteemed professors of architecture throughout the world.
I first met Bill in the early 1980s when we were both working for a downtown studio called the Total Design Group. We quickly learned that we were fish out of water: he’d just come from California, where he grew up in the farming town of Stockton; I was raised in a tiny suburb of Seattle, coming east to get both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Neither of us knew much about New York, except that we had to be there in order to experience the excitement and energy pulsing through the city. Reagan had just been elected, punk rock was emerging, and soon John Lennon would lose his life in a senseless act of violence. Both of us remained in the metropolitan area for decades, taking a few years out for travel and education elsewhere.
We reconnected when he found a job teaching at the Pratt Institute and I landed, after a few years at Columbia, at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. It turned out that neither of us was satisfied with the academic life, though he stayed longer than I did. We were writers and had to find venues in which to vent about what was wrong with the world, to make a difference in architecture and society. I managed to publish a few books, while he did some wonderful exhibitions at museums around the world.
In 2003 I called him up to congratulate him on the founding of a little online rag with a very unpretentious title: The Architect’s Newspaper. What was the big idea? Did he really expect to make a go of it with something so dumb, so obvious? Other journals were called Assemblage and Oppositions, provocative titles that were destined to draw hot-headed provocateurs and produce sizzling essays that would shake up the establishment. (Or, so it was thought.)
Bill explained that he wasn’t interested in what most people thought about design journalism; this little paper would get the news out, and whatever was fit to print would find its way onto a website and get mailed out in hard copies. He seemed to know that writers and architects would want to know the skinny behind what glossy magazines and academic journals were publishing. He got a gossip column going. He published stories about what architects did in their spare time. He did investigative journalism about design.
I quickly volunteered to write book reviews, and he took me on without blinking an eye. It seems that there were a lot of people contacting him with the same idea: I’ll cover whatever you need if you let me submit without deadlines and cumbersome editorial restrictions. He had the writers. Now he needed money. That, I thought, would be his biggest problem.
Bill was a man who could maintain his cool while chaos swirled around him. He never flinched when someone told him about obstacles or impossible financial constraints. He kept going, through a lot of ups and downs, always enthusiastic, always pretty cheerful, in a kind of California dreaming sort of way. Though he became a New Yorker, he never succumbed to the city’s cynicism or hard-bitten work ethic.
I kept waiting for the paper, Bill’s pipe dream, to vanish, like all such idealistic ventures in the city that never sleeps. Not only did it remain afloat, it expanded to the Midwest and the West Coast. Advertisers bought space in a publication that was sent free to anyone with a legitimate design practice or company. Like other innovative new publications, AN could persist because it stayed focused on bread-and-butter issues, not on fleeting theories or glamorous color spreads. As dozens of design magazines folded during the new century, The Architect’s Newspaper kept going.
A few years ago we had lunch downtown to catch up on things. He was the same Bill I had known 40 years ago: bright, curious, alive to what was around him. That incredible desire to understand the environment and record its pulse that I had seen in the 1980s was still going strong. He seemed almost oblivious to the time that had passed. We had a wonderful conversation and said goodbye. I thought we would see each other again.
I suspect that virtually everyone who knew Bill had the same reaction to his death: It can’t be true. As E.B. White observed in “Here Is New York,” his essential essay on the city, Gotham has a way of adopting its newcomers and installing them as if they were natives. Bill Menking was absorbed into the city’s fabric and cultural flows and became a fixture, without blinking an eye. He won’t be replaced. He won’t be forgotten. His wide-eyed vision will remain in that little newspaper, as long as it stays “in print.”
Featured image by Dagmar Richter, courtesy of The Architect’s Newspaper.